I asked my brilliant friend Stevie Dunning to contribute to the ongoing conversation concerning empathy and our work as international development professionals. This guest post is part of an ongoing series exploring the new buzzword (empathy). You can learn more about Stevie below and the series here.
I worked at an international criminal tribunal following my master’s program in 2012/3. For months prior, I meticulously analyzed the effects of various transitional justice mechanisms on reconciliation – eyeing how various spaces, states or “communal groups” balanced their own experience with that of their “hostile neighbors.” Ultimately, this was entrenched in the notion that humans are concerned with, or have a great respect for, tenets of morality.
I leaned on empathy when it came to identifying, or even advocating on behalf of, policies/strategies [namely pedagogy and history curricula] I believed crucial to reconciling one’s identity with one’s trauma, including with one’s perpetrators. I came to understand, and even believe, that such spatial “restorations” required “feeling into” (the German translation of Einfühlung [empathy]) the perspective or reality of another.
Before each judgment, it was primarily a mini-circus of journalists perched on their editorial agendas, along with some practitioners or dignitaries; and for “bigger” cases, victims and family members. Typically, it was fairly underwhelming – likely on account of the conflict having occurred over twenty years ago. However, in terms of attendance, I think it was 60/40 split between those waiting to see “international justice” stumble and “one’s” perpetrators behind bars. Additionally, numerous employees at the Tribunal were from the Balkans, and many lived through the war. Present realities, relationships, and effects – what was pulsing within and without the Tribunal – were not given the same respect as the past. It was tough going for empathy.
For “high-ranking” acquittals, I noticed that some victims would repeatedly return to the same courtrooms for different trials, answer the same questions, see the same blank expressions from defendants, and hear the same responses from judges. I always wanted to ask, “Do you feel released? Understood? Safer? Vindicated?” I obviously could never understand their experience, and had nothing aside from the assumptions I conjured from academia, and during my brief time in Serbia and at the Tribunal.
There was this one woman who had been coming to testify at the Tribunal for years. After one particular high-level official was given a life sentence, she ran up to his wife and children after the judgment, and with venom cursed the wife. In short and via translation, she told his wife that she would never remove her black dress; she wished her to die in it.
I wondered if this moment would stick with this woman, if she would wrap it around herself in a moment of sorrow, confusion, or anger. I also wondered how it would remain with the convicted man’s family. Will it be a story that passes between great grandchildren after too many drinks at dinner? One of shame? A forgettable memory in the face of so many others? Whatever the answer, it ultimately revealed that the past, present, and future of both parties will remain severed and traumatized.
This moment startled me not only for its hostility and pain, but also because I saw the resignation, and almost expectation, from my own colleagues who were from the region. On this particular day, a Bosnian colleague in my department wore an “anarchy” T-Shirt, which prompted me to speak with a few second-generation colleagues [those who didn’t grow up in the Balkans] who were rumored to be leaving. Their reasons were split between fear [that people from their community would discover they worked at the Tribunal] and disgust. Disgust became an important identifier for me, because it helped me place those “moral gut reactions” – in this case, in response to a conviction or acquittal. There was not always an easy “answer” to one’s disgust – it simply felt wrong, immoral, or unsatisfying. There was a lot of feeling evoked, but it wasn’t connected to any one else’s.
I saw that no court of law, or international view on morality, could enable one to “feel into” another’s experience, because its function was based on definitively ruling one party to be wrong and one to be right. It created hierarchies in everything: victimization; morality; and now, feeling. How could an institution ranking the human experience feasibly interact with, let alone facilitate, empathy for those involved? Each identity was bound to the same emotional response – “We feared.” – but there was no moral connection to the motivations or reactions.
Ultimately, this shows a staunch divide between morality and empathy; or rather a significant barrier to overcome in the face of addressing and accounting for (universal) wrongs (e.g. rape, genocide, ethnic cleansing). If empathy is indeed what makes us human, what can be practically facilitated in international relations, development, or in our basic interactions, is the notion that the lives of others have the same value as our own, and those within our “immediate” community. This experience prompted my view that it isboth more realistic and imperative to connect feelings and experience before developing or relying on a standard gauge or reflection of morality.
Stevie Dunning is a freelance writer/editor with an MA in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies, King's College London, and works within the executive office at The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, DC. Her main focus is transitional justice, diasporas and ethno-national identities. You can follow her on Twitter @steviEDUnning_